People on low incomes asked to self-isolate because they or a contact have tested positive for coronavirus will be paid to stay at home, under plans announced by the government.
The new means-tested benefit, which will only be paid to people in designated outbreak areas, is worth up to £182 for a 14-day isolation period and is being introduced with the aim of ensuring people can afford to miss out on work.
But local government leaders in areas covered by scheme warned that the payments were not generous enough to compensate for income lost through self-isolation.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said the payment "goes nowhere near far enough", adding people need "full pay".
And the Labour leader of Pendle Council, Mohammed Iqbal, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I welcome the fact that there is a financial package in place but the figures that the government have introduced are really a slap in the face for those people who sadly test positive.
“If you are somebody who works full-time who's not able to work from home, what the government is saying is that they will pay £4.55 an hour to self-isolate. That is not good enough. The worry that I've got is that people who test positive or are told to isolate, there is no incentive there for them to stay at home.”
Oldham Council leader Sean Fielding said: “I am pleased that the government have agreed to at least provide some financial help for those being asked to self-isolate in Oldham. Sadly this offer is nowhere near enough to provide real support, and it shows how out of touch with ordinary people this government is."
Announcing the measure, health secretary Matt Hancock said the new payment would “help people on low incomes and who are unable to work from home to continue playing their part in the national fight against this virus”.
He added that while the British public had “already sacrificed a great deal”, “self-isolating if you have tested positive for Covid-19, or have come into contact with someone who has, remains vital to keeping on top of local outbreaks”.
To be eligible for the payment, someone must be in employment that they would miss out on because of self-isolating, and their income must be low enough that they are either claiming universal credit or working tax credit.
The government says payments will be provided within 48 hours of a person providing the necessary evidence that they qualify for the payment: a notification from NHS Test and Trace and a bank statement. Ministers say they will try to prevent fraud using welfare check-ins, phone calls, and employment checks.
The policy will initially be introduced on a pilot basis in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle, and Oldham – with the possibility that it could be extended to other “areas of high Covid-19 incidence” where local lockdowns are imposed.
People who test positive for the virus will get £130 for their 10-day isolation period, while their household members, who have to isolate for 14 days, and their named contacts, will get £13 a day up to £182.
But because of the low income threshold for the payments, many workers like freelancers and self-employed people who earn more money but would still struggle to pay the bills if they are made to self-isolate will still get no help.
Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, said it was "concerning" that the scope of who could receive the payments was limited to only some areas and that it was set at a low level.
“Effective local lockdowns depend on people self-isolating when they’re supposed to. Labour has been warning for months that the government needs to make sure that people can afford to do the right thing, but once again Ministers have taken far too long to realise there’s a problem," she said.
“Just last week the Chancellor suggested there was no need to change the system for people who have to self-isolate. Now the Health Secretary - who confessed that Statutory Sick Pay in the UK isn’t enough to live on - thinks the solution is to offer people who aren’t currently eligible the same limited level of support.
“It’s concerning that this will only apply to a limited number of areas with high rates of Covid-19. The instruction to self-isolate applies to everyone in the country, so everyone should get the support they need to self-isolate.”
Under the coronavirus regulations, people who test positive must self-isolate, along with all their household and contacts who can be traced. The UK’s contact-tracing scheme has been criticised for failing to reach many people; some experts have suggested that the financial impact of having to self-isolate may be dissuading people from naming people to tracers.
Earlier this month Mr Burnham and Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram called for the introduction of cash support for people asked to self-isolated, dubbing it “Time out to help out”.
Mr Burnham said it was “not right” to “make a choice between self-isolating or face a drastic loss of income” while Mr Rotheram said that “people should be supported, not penalised, for doing the right thing and isolating at home”.
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